It’s 1988. My favorite baseball team has won the World Series. My favorite basketball team has won the NBA championship. My college’s baseball team has won the College World Series, and I am on the ground in Omaha to cover it for the school newspaper. Our men’s basketball team is about to have its best season in 47 years, and I am the one telling the story. As a sportswriter and sportslover, I am at the top of my game. One of the sentences I write is Xeroxed from the newspaper and placed on a window in the editor’s office. Handwritten underneath it with black Sharpie in capital letters are the words, “SENTENCE OF THE VOLUME.”
I have great friends. I don’t have a girlfriend, desperate as I am for one, which is all you need to know about that story. I’m in love, but she loves someone else. That’s my biggest lament. It’s not the first time nor the last time that happens.
I play pickup basketball, like I’ve been doing since I was 3 or 4. When it began, in our family driveway in Encino not all that far from the exterior of the Brady Bunch house, my older brother says he is Gail Goodrich and tells me I’m Happy Hairston. Now, in 1988, I’m just me. And I’m not really all that good. I’m fine, I guess. I can make plays, even a great play, but I can’t be counted upon to make them. I’m never the best player on the court or on my team, not for lack of trying. I’m just missing something.
Why aren’t I better?
No matter. It’s just pickup basketball. It’s 1988, and my life is in front of me.
I dream of going to work for a daily newspaper in sports, then moving over to Sports Illustrated, where I will write glorious, effulgent features until I inherit Rick Reilly’s back-page column, which I assure you was a big deal at the time. That’s what I’ll be writing until, at age 65 or whenever feels right, I retire.
It’s 1988, so we have computers, and AP stories even come to us electronically in the Stanford Daily offices. But I’ve never heard of the Internet, never sent an email. As fall turns to winter and winter to spring, I go to the library to look up addresses of newspapers and research job opportunities. Then, because I only have personal access to a dot-matrix printer, I pay to have my résumé and cover letter professionally typeset and printed, and then I hand-address envelopes and mail copies with cover letters everywhere. A week before my college graduation, I have two job offers, one in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, the other in Agana, Guam.
I worry, if I take either one of them, how long it will take me to get back to where I want to be. I decline them both and head home to Los Angeles. Within five months, I’m part-time at the Los Angeles Daily News, and that November, shortly before by 22nd birthday, when The National Sports Daily, the spiritual print ancestor of The Athletic, raids our toy department, I become the youngest full-time sportwriter in Los Angeles. I even have a girlfriend.
Everything is the way I envision it, and then, it all goes away. Within 2 1/2 years, I’m unemployed. I’m single. I’m completely starting over. It becomes a pattern. I think I’m making it, and then it’s gone. It’s a lifelong game of pickup hoops. I can make the plays, but then I don’t make the play.
I am not clutch.
I take this as mediocrity. Is that too harsh? Maybe not by the standard of 2020, where everything has gone to hell, but by the standard of 1988, I am truly, definitionally, mediocre. I am decent, but I am not special.
Why aren’t I better? Have I been outworked? Do I not understand what true work is? Or have I made the best of my ability … and this is it.
I am conscious that I am writing these thoughts down in the forum where I have had my greatest success. I earned some respect here. I am not dismissive of that. I am grateful for it. But I never caught fire. I could never figure out how to make a wider audience appreciate what I do. What does that say about me?
Maybe niche is nice, but my point is that my success doesn’t live up to my ambition.
In my house, it is the same. And that’s the real reason I’m writing this piece. It’s not about sports. It’s not about my career. It’s about my family. I am not the husband and father I thought I would be. We are home, in this era of coronavirus-induced suspended animation. We are going to be together with almost no one but each other for weeks. In different circumstances, I’d be thrilled. But we are not cohesive. I don’t imagine we’re unique, but I feel like my team is losing. And I am not clutch.
I’m not the worst. I make some plays. But you can’t count on me to make the play.